While women of color are more likely to be victims of crime, they are rarely portrayed as such — or at all — in criminology textbooks

The Invisible Women of Color

Last year, researchers published a paper reviewing the representation of women and minorities in the illustrations of introductory criminology textbooks. The study, conducted by a group at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, and updated again this summer, followed a similar analysis that lead author Helen Eigenberg had published back in 1994.

convictionsfinal As it turns out, not a lot has changed.

Then, as now, men and white people are heavily over-represented. Men of color are the most likely to be portrayed as criminals, while most of the victims shown are white women.

Some improvements, like the inclusion of men of color who are portrayed as professionals, and an increase in the number of women, have led several publishers to try — in vain — to get Eigenberg to rank them so they can tout the results in their marketing. But, overall, the improvements are small — and the representation of one group of people in particular has barely shifted at all.

“Women of color are still invisible,” Eigenberg says. “Given the fact that women of color are more likely to be victims than any other demographic group, and that women of color are also disproportionately incarcerated, it’s kind of shocking that they’re so invisible in textbooks.”

In the 1994 paper — based on an analysis of textbooks between 1988 and 1991 — only 4 percent of people appearing in criminology text illustrations were women of color. Today, they make up just 7 percent of the total — and that includes images in which they are merely extras, milling in the background of scenes that are really about white men, white women, or men of color.  If researchers didn’t count such depictions, then the minimal appearance of women of color in the textbooks has basically remained unchanged in almost 30 years — something Eigenberg, and others, say is indicative of a serious deficiency in the social sciences.

The most obvious question a study like this brings up is what impact these textbook images might have on the people taking introductory criminology classes. Those students could include future criminologists, police officers, and undoubtedly a fair number of people from unrelated majors just trying meet a social studies requirement. And what they see does influence them. In their recent paper, Eigenberg and her co-author, Seong min Park, noted that images play an outsized role in shaping memory. Introductory textbooks, they add, are “disproportionately influential compared to texts used in other areas of study as students in these courses are often in their first semester or year and many lack the analytical abilities and experience to be critical consumers of knowledge.”

But Eigenberg and other scientists tell me that the bigger problem is that textbook illustrations aren’t the only place where women of color are erased in academia. Instead, their lack of representation in criminology textbooks is one facet of a large and deeply troubling issue, both in research and in society itself.

Women of color — the risks they face, the challenges they overcome, the lives they live — are consistently absent from social science research, thanks to record keeping that tends to pile all women in one category, and all people of color in another. The result is data sets that don’t address what it means to be both non-white and female at the same time. And that, experts say, has very real repercussions for the lives of women of color. Repercussions that go far beyond whether they appear — or don’t — in criminology textbooks.

Researchers and institutions have gradually learned to pay attention to issues of race and gender — but that awareness often downplays, or even ignores, the overlapping identities which shape so much of people’s lives. For instance, when the Bureau of Justice Statistics released the results of its most recent criminal victimization survey, the tables showing victim demographics counted people by either sex or race, but not both. “It is astounding,” write Eigenberg and Park, “that all official data are not routinely analyzed and reported by both race and gender.”

This tendency is pervasive, says Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at UCLA. And, she says, it usually results in a situation where increased representation of women means increased representation of white women. Again, the criminology textbooks provide a great example of a bigger problem. The number of women in the images has increased. Men now account for 73 percent of the people portrayed instead of 81 percent. But the textbooks still end up depicting an alternate universe where black women, Latinas, Asian women, and Native women barely exist.

In 1989, Crenshaw came up with the term “intersectionality” to describe this problem. Nobody is defined entirely by a single demographic category. When it comes to how society treats you, you aren’t just a “woman.” You might be a middle-class black woman, or a poor white disabled woman, or a queer trans Latina. Every person inhabits an intersection of many different categories. When we try to flatten those diverse experiences into one category — woman — we end up with misleading data. And often, efforts at diversity that focus solely on “woman” are likely to end up having the biggest benefits for those who are already favored, such upper-middle class white women who are often better protected against cultural discrimination factors.

For example, Native women are by far the Americans who experience the highest rate of violent crime victimization, but you wouldn’t know that if you looked at the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ briefing about its national survey. The criminology textbooks Eigenberg studied mask that as well. In those books, the demographic most frequently portrayed as victims were white women.

These discrepancies between the world as it really is and the world as it’s portrayed in our data and in our publications and media images matter. Of course, counting women of color, or even adding more Native women to the textbooks, doesn’t fix underlying structural problems in the field of criminology, said Helen Taylor Greene, a professor in the Administration of Justice program at Texas Southern University. She is especially critical of the way that race and crime tends to be taught as something distinct from criminology, in general, rather than an integral part of it.

The statistical ghosting of women of color has real world consequences.

Consider domestic violence. Forty-three percent of black women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes — a higher rate than any racial group other than Native women. They are also, according to research by University of Colorado, Boulder sociologist Hillary Potter, more likely to fight back against an abuser. But that information — and the critical context it offers — is lost in the popular narratives which almost exclusively portray white women as the victims of domestic abuse. Researchers say that failure contributes the fact that black women are more likely to be convicted for killing abusive husbands than white women are.

Researchers have identified similar failures — and problems — in the education system.

In recent years, activists and researchers have started to document the impact that zero-tolerance discipline programs have on boys of color. But again, when researchers analyze the data for gender and race, they can easily see other troubling issues.

“Low and behold we find some pretty shocking things,” Crenshaw says. “While black boys are suspended at a rate three times the rate of white boys, black girls are suspended at six times the rate of white girls. That’s obscured because there’s not an intersectional lens.” In the school-to-prison pipeline, those suspensions (often for small infractions like “having a bad attitude”) escalate into something worse. Students who are suspended or expelled from school are three times as likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system as those who are not. That suspension rate means that black girls are much more likely to end up before a judge than their white peers.

And that’s a story that rarely gets told. Just like in the criminology textbook images, social science often hides women of color in the blurry crowd shots of someone else’s story. When we don’t track statistics intersectionally, we miss problems, we miss solutions, and the people we ignore suffer for it. Research does suggest that problems, like the imbalanced images of criminology texts, reinforces our negative stereotypes of people of color. But, as Crenshaw emphasized, “for women of color, it’s not just stereotyping that’s a problem. It’s a matter of not even showing up.”